Sicario & Irrational Man

Where Good Rags Come From


Both films can be saved by the genre that they look down upon. Even that idea is a better story.
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Reported on 22nd of January, 2016

It was three-quarters of the way through Sicario when I realized why I was seeing it. It’s arguably better to think about these things before one sees a film, but that hasn’t, won’t, actually sometimes does, and yet this time did not, stop me. Hence the title of the site, which I discovered only this month was still available as a twitter handle. That’s right, this blog is so unpopular not even North Korean web crawlers will steal the name and sell it back to me. It is an accomplishment of sorts, like having the name Scott King: I’m where even google can’t find me.

Realizing during movies is generally a bad thing. One should either be writing furiously how great it is, or, ideally, nothing. If Mr. Sylvester Stallone thinks the perfect script has one word of dialog, the best response is probably a blank piece of paper, instigated writer’s block.

Sicario

7 October 2015 @ The Gaumont Rennes


$5.00 or, if one must be quotidian, and one must... 
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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But this was not the case. Instead, I was asking the question as to why I was here. I considered the obvious: was it because of M. Denis Villeneuve, our director? I mentally rewound on M. Villeneuve’s last two films. The first was the uncategorizably fantastic Enemy, the follow-up the execrable Prisoners, a film so terrible that I gave the act of not seeing it three stars. If I had talked to my film bookie…

(speaking of jobs I’m qualified for, and more unreserved twitter handles. Imagine:

‘I’ll lay you 6 to 1 that The Martian contains four scenes of visual geegaw, but little narrative sense’.’That’s extremely vague and subjective. Who would even be the judge in such….’

‘….’

‘You just saw it didn’t you?’

‘Here. I hope you choke on it.’

‘Keep coming back.’

‘It works when you work it.’)

…I would not see this film. Enemy is not only great, but utterly ignored. Prisoners is truly terrible, and both popular and overpraised. The bookie would note the inversion of the Second Peter Hyams rule, where bad films come when a filmmaker is feted for a shitty film. I was frankly surprised that Sicario was even passable, which for the first sixty minutes it was.

But as the film strayed into the convenientism of Prisoners, I began to reason: in order to know that Prisoners was terrible, I would have to have seen it, which I had. Why, having actually written a piece on the pleasure of not seeing it, would I do such a thing?

The answer is nerdy, but actually answers why I was at this film: Mr. Roger Deakins. I found out, after the fact, that Mr. Deakins had shot Prisoners, and so I rented it, and god help Me, saw it, all the way through. As horrendous at it is to watch, Prisoners is beautiful to look at.

So that’s me. I would see a film for the cinematographer. Cinema, as it happens, is cinema. It’s based on the pleasure of looking. I’ll go for special effects, for pretty girls (and Mr. Ewan MacGregor), and, now, for Mr. Deakins. Mr. Deakins shot Sicario, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Prisoners, No Country for Old Men, Shawshank Redemption, and many other films for which he has never won the Oscar. He is the Alfred Hitchcock of cinematographers: too good to win.

Don't remember the treats from this one, so I give yous some in camera notes: The 'ethical dilemma' spoils it all. This is a simple fix. Fuck ethics. It's about logistics. It's like the end of The Candidate - fuck, now what? You give them what they want (i.e. Iraq), and then it goes to shit because the plan, like all plans, has to live in the real world. Let the genre decide.

Don’t remember the treats from this one, so I give yous some in camera notes: The ‘ethical dilemma’ spoils it all. This is a simple fix. Fuck ethics. It’s about logistics. It’s like the end of The Candidate – fuck, now what? You give them what they want (i.e. Iraq), and then it goes to shit because the plan, like all plans, has to live in the real world. Let the genre decide.

Mr. Deakins is a guarantee the way trailers and reading the reviews ahead of time want to be: you know you’ll get something by watching. There are few people that I would do this for: Mr. James L. Brooks, Sr. Alfanso Cuaròn, Ms. Lynne Ramsey and Mr. Guy Pierce. This last isn’t because he’s so hot, but that he’s basically a fifteen years ago Bruce Willis. Results is completely incompatible with The Rover, itself incompatible with Lockout. A Mr. Pierce joint is the excitement of uncertainty. It’s a guarantee that you’re taking a chance.

Mr. Roger Deakins, however, is a sure thing. And Sicario is no exception to the Deakins œuvre, a true narcissist. Normally, that’s a bad thing, but like an imagined encounter between Masoch and de Sade, it’s a good fit for a scopophile. There is little point describing the sublimity of the images in text. Go ahead and see it.

No, really. It’s not that awful. It even has some nice moments of cinema, combined with a smidgen of insight into the border world, as the various agent types seek the places the coyotes don’t go, reasoning that this is where they will find the mythical tunnel of super big drug dealers.

The film furthermore manages to sustain no small amount of tension, especially in its initial stages. As our neophyte (Ms. Emily Blunt) is thrown in over her head (another effective trope), we and she are kept largely in the dark as to what is happening. When the various police forces bring a prisoner back across the border to the US, the creepy Mr. Josh Brolin delights in telling us (and our heroine) all the things to watch out for without telling us what is happening.

This is an supremely effective technique, as it was in SotL and Ringu and even It Follows: showing all the excessive preparations without explaining what to expect to either the audience or the lead. This allows what comes to loom as large as our imagination can let it.

Unfortunately, and this is the Ringu problem discussed previously here, if you’re going to build the tension to that point, you have to at least meet those expectations, ideally exceed them. When Lecter escapes, or the bald dude that only you can see ducks underneath the doorframe into your room, it better be fucking awesome.

Having Mr. Roger Deakins as your director of photography may actually work against you, as he provides a stunning overhead slow tracking shot of the convoy stuck in traffic ahead the customs crossing, sweepingly and creepingly indicating distance and time. With the setup in question, and Mr. Deakins on board, we expect a protracted and well-constructed sequence, imaginative with a strong awareness of physical space.

We get a shootout.

No, that’s pretty much it. Drug types try to shoot them, and then, they, uh, get shot.

Even so, the film had built up some good will, and I was willing to see where it was going. At least that’s what I thought at the time. But in retrospect, I was hoodwonky, the present tense before you realize you’ve been tricked. Watching the film I thought, hey, that was pretty good, when in fact, it wasn’t. And M. Villeneuve might’ve gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for someone else’s meddling inner monologs.

Irrational Man

18 October 2015 @ Le Vauban 2


-$20.00 or, if one must be jejune, and one must... 
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

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There aren't going to be many chances to see films at St. Malo's Le Vauban 2, a resolutely Version Française theater, in a steadfastly VF town. Films by the Coen Brothers and Mr. Woody Allen are the only films shown not dubbed here. I arrived an hour early to do, well, this actually. But it was Sunday, and in between the 11a showing and the 14h showing, the cinema was closed. After waiting around at the nearby train station, I discovered that the theater was in fact part of a library. The theaters themselves, like most in France, are lovely, clean, great sight lines, comfy seats, the whole bit. The drawback being that it's a library, so no concession stand, only a lonely vending machine. I got a kinder Bueno.

I got a kinder Bueno.

There aren’t going to be many chances to see films at St. Malo’s Le Vauban 2, a resolutely Version Française theater, in a steadfastly VF town. Films by the Coen Brothers and Mr. Woody Allen are the only films shown not dubbed here. I arrived an hour early to do, well, this actually. But it was Sunday, and in between the 11a showing and the 14h showing, the cinema was closed. After waiting around at the nearby train station, I discovered that the theater was in fact part of a library. The theaters themselves, like most in France, are lovely, clean, great sight lines, comfy seats, the whole bit. The drawback being that it’s a library, so no concession stand, only a lonely vending machine.

Unfortunately, the moderate failures of Sicario were laid bare by the obvious ones of Irrational Man, a film which deserves not so much a review as an aside. The story, that a philosophy professor kills a randomly encountered man to find purpose in life, is solid Jim Thompson or, better still, Charles Willeford. Its bland dearth is identical in many ways to Sicario‘s more depressing one: talking.

The rule of course is show don’t tell, and that’s fine, but there is such a thing as good dialog and even voiceover. Watching Irrational Man is an uniquely self-reflexive experience: the irony of a film about the importance of action that contains no actual action. In a way, dialog should do what not talking is supposed to: suggest, and let the audience jump the gap. As there isn’t much there to dissect, in the end, as with all great and failed pulp, it’s the filler that matters.

The Take – Irrational Man

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Profits!
To its credit, our leads, Ms. Stone and Mr. Phoenix, overhear a conversation about a recalcitrant judge whom Mr. Phoenix, very eventually murders. You notice, because the overheard conversation is the first moment of energy in the film. It happens 37 minutes in.
$1.00
The look on Mr. Phoenix’s face after he has done the deed is a staggering combination of self-revultion, fear and pride. It would like to see the movie where that shot belonged.
$3.00
Total Profits
$3.00
Losses!
The film has enough material for a short, and not a good one. Not sure how to calculate this. Correct running time for all films (90 minutes) multiplied by a divisor of material running time (1/4 minutes), thus creating an inverse relationship between material running time and loss to viewer, or 90 * (1 / 6).
Please consider, and then pity, the amount of time I spent thinking about this.
$15.00
For someone who yammers about life’s lack of meaning, there is a lot of conventional morality. It reminds one of prototypical Christian (or Kant)…
$1.00
Sorry, forgot. Here’s another clunker, ‘which Kant would argue is a problem.’
$2.00
…and the idea that without morals, we’d just kill people. Being that morals often come after the fact, this tells us about the person saying it, not the world. Willeford would have written a book about the filmmaker.
$2.00
Having witnessed the ending, we are treated to a second ending, where Ms. Stone narrates via inner monolog exactly what we have just seen. These last two minutes is some of the worst filmmaking I have ever seen.
$3.00
Total Losses
$23.00

-$20.00

Sicario has some action in it, thank God, but still suffers from the talking problem above. The colossal con began to dawn on me when Ms. Blunt became yelly over the shootout in question: we didn’t follow the law, and now I’m loud and indignant now to indicate and so forth!

Problem was, as the wool was winked from my hood, and there’s possibly a better way to say that, the shootout was straight up legal under the most UK of definitions. To explain, Great Britain is a place that doesn’t allow self-defense, bad thoughts, bad speech, or me, as it happens. The bad guys (who mysteriously knew how to be stuck in traffic just where they should be) drew their weapons, and the various military police shot them back. There is no moral dilemma here, just growing confusion over why our lead would see one.

As a former vintage clothing store drone, I learned that we got our stuff through pickers, while the rest of it was pulped to make rags. No one seemed to realize that 1980s clothing would become collectable. We were selling clothing that was a certain age, how could we predict time would move forward?

Things proceed, or, technically, unfold procedurally, from there. Ms. Blunt learns, or rather, is inexplicably told, what the whole deal is about (that there going to kill drug dealers to bring back the order of having one cartel). Ms. Blunt has been recruited to provide the CIA with FBI authorization. The film is thus capped with a confusingly anti-climatic Sign this! No! Sign this! Yes! scene.

So, yeah, that’s the ending. So maybe don’t see it.

Whether or not we want to ask the film logic question that if the Warren Commission could fake signatures, how hard is it in the photoshop age, this scene underlines two things. The first is obvious and depressing: Ms. Blunt is another female non-character, with no agency in the story. You could call her a pawn, but she ain’t even in the game. So, she’s less a pawn than a board.

Sorry, misspelled that last word.

This is made less depressing as men have played this part before, more an indication of lazy writing for the end and the ‘point’. The second is much a greater failure: slumming it in genre. I love pulp, and I know it well. As a former vintage clothing store drone, I learned that we got our stuff through pickers, while the rest of it was pulped to make rags. No one seemed to realize that 1980s clothing would become collectable. We were selling clothing that was a certain age, how could we predict time would move forward?

Pulp books come from the same process, the shitty paperbacks made from the pretentious shit that people read in the 1930s that no one cares about now, mashed down and imprinted with the books we still read today. Pulp works, and works on this act don’t talk principle. Artists who think they know better fail because they think they can improve it. Artists who love it actually do.

But what occurred to me in the combination of the two films is possibly the more important and timeless quality of pulp: its morality. Pulp, is inherently about ethics. A dull topic, but pulp makes it sing by putting our hypotheticals into the consequences of choice and action. This is a truncated list, but think of the films that hold up, The Maltese Falcon, Three Days, Chinatown, Nightcrawler, Election, The Wire, The Killing, A Simple Plan, even Crimes and Misdemeanors, all of them give their characters something to do, and parents forbid in this day and age, consequences to their actions.

The show don’t tell rule actually applies not to the story so much as it does to the motives of the characters. Having characters opine about right and wrong is exactly as interesting as my use of the word ‘ethics’, now six times. And yet both films can be saved, if they were willing to be, by the genre that they look down upon. Using the Willeford option for Irrational Man as a template, ground it in what happens, what the characters do, what unfold.

In Sicario, as long as it was, let it play out. The plan of using murder to create order is classic pulp, and always ends the same way: inevitably and yet unexpectedly. When you kill to put someone in power, it’s never in a vacuum, and things rapidly fall apart. It’s as fun to watch as it is important to fucking well avoid in real life.

Because there’s something else disturbing about this phenomenon. It’s rote by now that that we will have characters explaining to the audience what happens, the ‘He made it!’, ‘We’re in!’, and various console drones standing up and cheering. What should be disturbing is that these films represent the moral equivalent of story laziness: not indicating how we should feel, but how we should judge. I doubt this is new, but I’ll get more Korean web crawlers if I say that this is a Phenomenon Of Our Time Unlike Any Before It: tell don’t show ethics may be our generation’s problem. In pulp, a layman’s knowledge of right and wrong is expected. What does it say about life today that this is no longer true?

The Take!

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Profits!
This is simple (also, I’ve said everything). For when the film is pulpy
$4.00
Losses!
…for when it was not.
$4.00
Additional Profits!
Fuck it. The music was quite good, wasn’t it?
$2.00
And Deakins of course. If people would show up to Mr. Morgan Freeman reading the ingredients of a cereal box, I’d see a Deakins film directed by Sam Mendes.
$3.00
and then I took it too far.

$5.00

Thoughts on Where Good Rags Come From

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  1. Watching Sicario I kept wondering why the camera was always preternaturally located where it was supposed to be, then when I watched it again I remembered to ask myself who shot it and when his credit came up I shook my fist at the ceiling and bellowed DEAKINS

  2. Scott Scott says:

    When you said it, were you being rained on and shot from above? Preternaturally is the perfect word. I’m seeing Hail Caesar today for him alone.

    The opposite is also true. I went into the not quite campy enough to enjoy Spectre thinking that Mr. Deakins had shot it. You know from the first shot that he had not.

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